233 Nothing To Lose
"Let's go, Heiyue!" Li Xueyue happily said after climbing on top of her horse. She urged Heiyue forward. He excitedly walked in the direction of the open field. Eventually, the small walk broke into a run, and soon, the two were racing in the familiar direction of the forest.
Li Xueyue felt her heart leap against her chest the closer they approached the forest. Excitement swarmed her at the thought of her secured future.
Months ago, everything still seemed so bleak and helpless. She thought her destiny would forever lie in Wuyi, but she supposed all of her worries were silly and futile now.
Li Xueyue had finally come to terms with the inevitable—she had fallen in love for the final time in her life. Whatever happened next, she would decide what to do herself. Whatever troubles and hurricanes that might come her way, all of that would seem trivial with Yu Zhen by her side.
"Good boy," Li Xueyue murmured as Heiyue came to a slow strut. They were inside of the forest now and the familiar path where she had taken before, greeted her.
"Hmm, if I remember correctly, Yu Zhen took me out from that direction…" Li Xueyue murmured as she urged Heiyue forward.
The deeper they got into the forest, the more she was certain of her directions. The trees were all the same but the plants around it weren't. She distinctively recalled the path that Yu Zhen had taken when he brought her back to Li Manor on his horse.
"That's so strange," Li Xueyue mumbled under her breath.
The forest was still and quiet. Not a single soul was disturbed. The tiny animals ran freely, hopping as they pleased. There was a calm in the air. A serene breeze danced past her, lifting her hair as it fluttered in the wind. The scent was musty and earthy as if there wasn't a single sign of human activity.
There was no longer the hustle and bustle of soldiers. The smell of food cooking over a campfire no longer lingered in the air.
Heiyue continued walking in the direction she wanted. Eventually, Li Xueyue guided her horse to the exact place that should've been brimming with human activity, but there wasn't.
"What happened…?" she said.
A quiet gust of air blew by, revealing the dented grounds devoid of human life. Her smile slipped. The soldiers were all gone. The tents, the campfire, the troops, not a single one of them were in sight except for some scattered wood and remnants of burnt wood from put out campfires.
Was this why Yu Zhen never contacted her? Because he was busy packing?
"Let's go," Li Xueyue murmured, deciding he must've ventured deeper into the forest. He had to be.
Yu Zhen wouldn't leave her like this. She was certain of it.
The longer they rode, the antsier Li Xueyue became. They finally stopped at the parted clearing leading to the tents that the Bai Family was held captive then. But to her sheer horror, even that place was vacated.
There wasn't even a single splotch of blood on the ground. Yu Zhen and his men left as quickly as they came. There were barely any imprints of civilization that briefly settled down there. Not a single trace of human activity could be found.
It was then Li Xueyue accepted the truth. Yu Zhen was gone.
- - - - -
"Mother, where did Xueyue go?" Li Chenyang said the minute he found his mother in the gardens.
Duchess Wang Qixing had a faraway expression as she tenderly touched the hydrangea flowers.
Li Chenyang's throat dried at the sight of his mother's tender action. It was as if his mother thought she was caressing Li Minghua's face.
Even his younger sister's name sounded like a flower, a prominent and bright one destined to bloom to her fullest.
Li Minghua's stars were aligned and she had everything going well for her; a wealthy Princess for a mother and a prominent Prime Minister for a father.
Li Chenyang's heart felt heavy. Did she have to leave so soon?
Li Chenyang glanced down at his hands. His fingers had imprints from holding a brush for too long. There was so much he could've done for Minghua, but didn't, all because he couldn't get past her frequent betrayals. If there was one thing that Li Minghua loved to do, it was snitching on her older brothers.
"Mother…?" Li Chenyang called out, wondering if she heard him the first time.
Duchess Wang Qixing blinked in surprise. She dropped her hands and turned to her son. "Sorry, what did you say?"
Li Chenyang frowned. It was unlike his mother to space out like that. She was always quick-witted and clear-minded, never missing a single detail. There was a reason that rumors never arose about her. Her sharp tongue kept people in place.
"I was asking where Xueyue went. She's not in her room nor at the training fields. Her horse is also gone. Did she go horseback riding?"
"Well, your sister is chasing her future," Duchess Wang Qixing vaguely said. She placed her watering can down and decided the flowers had enough attention from her today. But when she turned her back to it, it called for her again.
Li Chenyang read between the lines. His aloof expression was replaced by sheer anger. "Mother, you let her go after Yu Zhen?!"
"Don't raise your voice at me," Duchess Wang Qixing sniped. "What has gotten into you, Son? You're beginning to lose your composure more often. That's not good for you, especially for what you're planning in the future."
Li Chenyang let out a sigh, nodding in agreement. "Sorry, I was just—"
"No need to explain yourself," Duchess Wang Qixing assured and smiled up at him, giving his cheek a reassuring pat. "I know you're tired from shouldering the Emperor's burdens. It will all be over soon."
Li Chenyang slowly nodded. "The meeting with Wen Jinkai is approaching soon."
Duchess Wang Qixing blinked. "Indeed, it is."
"The entire family except Xueyue will be present," Li Chenyang murmured. "If she's there, more problems will arise. Wen Jinkai might even be tempted to wager for her in exchange for his loyalty."
"Well, we can't be certain that he will ever betray the Empress. But once his mother's crimes come to light, perhaps things will be different."
Li Chenyang slowly nodded at her words. "I just hope he has the conscience to admit his wrongdoings."
"That boy, no matter how aggravating and frustrating he may be, is one of the most pitiful people I've come to know," Duchess Wang Qixing murmured. "His actions towards our Minghua are despicable, but he has no one in this world except the Empress."
Li Chenyang didn't bother to refute her. He knew it was true. Wen Jinkai had less than a handful of friends, and those he was acquainted with, he never trusted. The only person that kept him sane was Li Minghua. The only person he had ever placed his full trust in was her. And now, look at where she was.
Li Chenyang frowned. "I don't have time to pity him. I don't care about his background or the things that shaped him to be who he is today. I only care about the actions he took that described him to be more than what meets the eye."
Duchess Wang Qixing's expression softened. She, too, would not find excuses for his actions, but the thought of that lonely man plagued her thoughts. Ever since Wen Jinkai was born, his life was filled with nothing but misery and despair. That kind of man was the least predictable.
Wen Jinkai had nothing to lose.